Suffolk County Council spends £1.7m on consultants for improvements to SEND services, but ‘parents aren’t seeing any difference day to day’
Campaigners have said a council’s £1.7 million spend on consultants for SEND services has not led to improvements for families and children – and in fact ‘it’s the worst it’s ever been’.
Suffolk County Council (SCC), which runs children’s services and is the local education authority, has used consultants as part of its work to reform special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) services in the county and improve the experience and outcomes for children and young people.
However, despite spending £1,730,877.10 on consultancy for SEND services since December 2021, campaign and support groups said positive changes had not materialised on the ground.
Toni Wasag, a spokeswoman for the Failed by Suffolk protest group, questioned why SCC needed to spend the £1.7 million ‘when parents are literally telling them what’s going wrong’.
She added: “If they just listened to parents, all of that money wouldn’t have needed to have been spent.
“They have spent all that money and the lived experience for parents is the worst it’s ever been.”
The Freedom of Information request by SuffolkNews revealed the vast majority of the spend had been on Impower Consulting Ltd (£1,695,077.10 from December 2021-October 2023), while the remaining £35,800 was paid to Anthony Douglas Ltd (from April 2023 until October 2023).
A SCC spokeswoman confirmed this month that Impower and Anthony Douglas had finished working with the authority.
Rachel Hood, cabinet member for education, SEND and skills at Suffolk County Council, said it was standard practice to seek specialist advice and with such an acute focus on improvement, especially on this scale, ‘it is the right thing to do’.
SCC has been accused by campaigners of ‘failing’ children with SEND, with families left fighting the system for support for these youngsters.
The outcome of a local area SEND inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is imminent, following the inspectors’ conclusion in 2019 that local area leaders had not made sufficient progress to improve serious weaknesses.
However, last year the Department for Education described the effectiveness and pace of reform within SEND services in Suffolk as ‘reassuring’.
Toni, from Needham Market, near Stowmarket, said schools needed to make reasonable adjustments for SEND children, thereby reducing the rising demand for EHCPs.
EHCPs – education, health and care plans – were introduced in 2014 and are legal documents specifying the SEND support youngsters must receive.
Nationally, the number of plans being issued has been rising, putting pressure on already stretched council finances.
‘It’s a terrible situation for SEND parents and children’
Toni, who has six children aged nine to 26, used to be chair of the Suffolk Parent Carer Forum (SPCF), the strategic consultative body in Suffolk set up to help shape SEND provisions and services.
Before, during and after her time at SPCF, she said she had repeatedly told SCC and consultants to hold schools to account, making sure schools were ensuring needs were met with reasonable adjustments.
“It’s still not happening,” said Toni. “They are just leaving families with no alternative but to pay for private assessments and even if they pay for private assessments they are sometimes ignored.
“The voluntary sector is picking up the slack for free and they are paying £1.7 million to consultants rather than paying to support families.”
She added: “Early intervention and reasonable adjustments are the only things that will stop the number of EHCPs rising. For that to happen, the schools need extra funding.”
While schools are set to receive a termly visit from a specialist teacher to support inclusion, through Specialist Education Services (SES), Toni does not think it would be enough.
“I think the problem is when the Government decided all schools were going to become academies that left local authorities across the country with no power to do anything,” she said.
Toni has four children at home: two in mainstream education and two in specialist schools.
Of her children now in specialist, she said one was out of school for 18 months when they were 12 as they could not cope with mainstream. And with the other, it took until the end of primary school before ‘everyone decided they weren’t best suited to mainstream education and it was a little bit too late’.
Toni’s career was in mentoring children, care and supporting families of autistic children and she now spends the majority of her time supporting families through the Failed by Suffolk protest group and other groups.
“I now support parents who are in the situation I was in years ago. I’m working for these parents, going to meetings with them,” she said.
“Quite a few of the parents I’m supporting at the moment have been told by their mainstream schools there’s nothing for them unless they pay privately [in terms of assessments and support].
“I’m currently advising all of the parents I’m supporting to use their right to choose. They don’t have to use Suffolk services.”
She explained people could choose to go private and it was paid for by the NHS, as long as it was no more expensive.
She spoke of long waits in Suffolk for an ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or autism assessment through the NDD (neurodevelopmental disorder) pathway, and added: “Some of the parents I have been supporting have been waiting 18 months for triage, not even an assessment.”
As chair of SPCF, Toni said she had spent considerable time working with SCC and the then clinical commissioning group (CCG) to try to make sure improvements were made and parents’ voices were being heard, but added: “I don’t think the reality is they were heard.”
She said: “It’s a terrible situation for SEND parents and children because they are being failed and obviously the mental health of the parents of these children is suffering, which is going to put more strain on adult services.”
She feels even if there were drastic changes at this moment, it would take years to see proper improvements and in the meantime it would ‘damage and traumatise’ those children and parents.
Despite this ‘very depressing’ picture, Toni said: “All we can do is keep talking and shouting very loudly and hopefully someone will hear.”
‘It would be great to see some progress’
Father-of-two Steven Wright, of Campaign for Change (Suffolk SEND), is also among those fighting for improvements to SEND services in Suffolk, and has himself won compensation from SCC.
Steven, from East Bergholt, near Ipswich, said: “It would be great to see some progress. The moment we actually see improvements to outcomes – we are not expecting silver bullets – but the moment we start to see things turning around in direction I will start to give the council a bit of credit, but we are just not.”
He said he was constantly hearing from parents whose EHCPs are still late, or ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’, exclusions and suspensions are ‘through the roof’ and that disproportionately affects children with SEND.
He said if they did not tackle exclusions, ‘they will not be able to build a SEND system in Suffolk’.
“There is this massive EHCP demand, but if children are getting excluded from school because they don’t have their SEND needs met, children have no choice but to apply for an EHCP needs assessment, do they?”
Steven added: “There has to be some disincentive to schools for doing this [exclusions].”
He said using consultants effectively was not necessarily a bad thing, provided it was good value for money, but he did not think it had been in this case.
“If Suffolk doesn’t have the skills, why are we not recruiting people with the skills or training them? Why do we need a consultant?,” questioned Steven.
‘In fact things are getting worse’
Bec Jasper is the founder and co-director of Suffolk support group Parents and Carers Together (PACT), which helps parents and carers with a child or young person with mental health issues.
She said: “We were very surprised to learn of the amount spent during this period on consultancy fees around the current SEND system in Suffolk.
“While we appreciate the need for independent consultants when there is systemic failure of vulnerable children and young people, what our parents aren’t seeing is any difference day to day.
“We still have many being forced to apply for EHC needs assessments unnecessarily because schools are unwilling to provide simple reasonable adjustments for those with SEND, we also hear of schools refusing to (or unable to) meet needs which are set out in EHCPs.
“The EHCP process is costly both financially to taxpayers, but also places stress and anxiety on the shoulders of families awaiting decisions and appeals which aren’t always necessary.”
She said waiting times around assessments in both health and education (for SEND) were causing ‘much distress’ to families and this had not improved from what they were seeing and hearing on the ground.
“In fact things are getting worse with many VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations having to also restrict services due to picking up provision of support to families when statutory services are failing,” she added.
She said PACT had not been made aware of any recommendations by the consultants and would be keen to read them.
“We also need SCC to be accountable for future changes based on any recommendations from this process in the hope that this has been money well spent,” she added.
‘These costly consultancy fees seem hard to justify’
Elliot Keck, head of campaigns of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Given residents’ concerns, these costly consultancy fees seem hard to justify.
“Vital SEND services may require external expertise, but local taxpayers are bound to feel as though they aren’t getting value for money if there are no noticeable improvements.
“Suffolk County Council must ensure they are procuring a good return on investment for these important provisions.”
‘We continue to invest many millions of pounds into these services’
Impower’s website says the company ‘delivers better outcomes that cost less’.
“By enabling public service leaders to grip the challenges of complexity, we supercharge their ability to improve lives and save money,” the website says.
Impower’s ‘High Hopes for High Needs Programme Impact Report 2023’ details its work with six local areas, including Suffolk, to improve SEND services for 80,000 children and young people.
Among its work in Suffolk, it mentions the creation of an Inclusion Advice Line, supporting faster access to advice to help schools to see and meet children’s needs better and earlier.
Rachel Hood, cabinet member for education, SEND and skills at Suffolk County Council, said: “Improving the way we deliver SEND support and provision to our children and young people is our number one priority and we continue to invest many millions of pounds into these services.
“This investment includes the use of skilled experts who bring an independent and objective view to help us deliver better services.
“It is standard practice to seek specialist advice and with such an acute focus on improvement, especially on this scale, it is the right thing to do.”
SCC says it is proposing an additional £4.4 million spend within SEND services next financial year.
A ‘Suffolk Area SEND Partnership Self-Evaluation Summary’ for 2023 said the integrated plan to drive their SEND strategy was ‘now making tangible progress’, but added: “We recognise that parents and carers may not yet be feeling the impact of the changes being made.”